Top critical review
Only partially right about parenting in Germany
Reviewed in the United States on January 15, 2019
As a new mother and an American who has been living in Germany (Berlin and Frankfurt) for almost 6 years, I couldn't wait to read this book. I hail from the same part of the US as the author so I assumed we'd also have a similar point of view on the key differences between American and German parenting styles. And while this is at times a fun read, it's written by someone who doesn't really understand the nuances of German culture or parenting - likely because she lived a very "expat" life in Berlin so couldn't get below the surface, even with the many expert interviews.
I'm not trying to pick on the author here - German is not an easy language and it takes a lot of time to truly integrate and make German friends, especially in Berlin (since my husband is German, I've had a leg-up on this front). But there were many partial truths or things that may be technically accurate but not at all consistent with the way things actually work here -- things that made my German husband laugh out loud. A few examples:
- No one would leave their baby in a stroller outside of a restaurant. In parts of Scandinavia, sure, or maybe in the smallest village in Germany, but certainly not in a major German city.
- It may be true that legally, bars and restaurants are supposed to send teens under 18 home at midnight. In practice, this never, ever happens.
- Hospital births in Germany are super natural birth friendly, despite the terrible way they're described in this book. In fact it is often difficult to get an epidural or other drugs during a hospital birth and, as the author points out, births are midwife-led. The idea that most people who go to a hospital end up with a c-section is preposterous (and statistically untrue, as the author herself admits). Among my friends, 3 children were born via c-section in a German hospital (one planned, 2 emergency after many other options were first tried) and 11 were born vaginally - far from "most" of them being c-sections.
- Germans are all entitled to a sleep consultant?! What?!?! How come none of my mom friends or the other kita parents have ever heard about this? I know of 1 German acquaintance who tried - and paid handsomely for - a sleep consultant. This is by no means a standard and subsidized offering.
- This is a nitpick, but some of the German was wrong (Abitur, not Arbitur; as someone else pointed out, "Achtung" is rarely ever used) and it drove me nuts that German nouns weren't capitalized, as they should be.
Beyond this, I took bigger issue with the unbalanced way in which many aspects of the German system and German parenting were described. If you're going to extol the virtues of this system -- and don't get me wrong, there are many -- it is important to be clear about the costs as well.
- For one, Germans pay around 50% of their income in taxes, which funds wonderful things like kita and university. Yes, these things are technically low-cost/free in that you're not getting a monthly bill for them, but everyone here ultimately pays via taxes. This is a far more socialized system than the US, with all of its costs and (many) benefits. To pretend we can have the same without fundamentally changing the state-society relationship - and corresponding tax rates - isn't really fair.
- Among the costs of this kind of socialized system is a serious lack of kita spaces. She describes spending some time looking for a spot for her child but attributes it to her bad timing rather than a lack of spaces. In many cities (Frankfurt, Munich), it is near impossible to get a space (ask any of my friends who went from kita to kita delivering homemade cookies and begging) and some families are without care options when the child turns one, meaning a parent may need to stay home longer than planned - with all of the ensuing financial consequences.
- There's an important difference between the quality of care someone on public versus private health insurance receives. For example, a publicly-insured mom will likely get a shared room in a hospital after giving birth, while someone with private insurance will get a private room and access to the head ob/gyn.
- I know Berlin is a bit different, but in most of the former west, traditional gender roles are strong (recent research said they're comparable to gender roles in Italy: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13324.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share) and, as this research explains, mothers are often stigmatized for pursuing a career. This is absolutely consistent with my experiences in Frankfurt, where people were horrified when I returned to work before my son was a year and where our kita expects children to be picked up by 3:30pm every day. It's unclear to me how that's supposed to work unless one parent (and almost always the mother) isn't working full-time. Germany is a wonderful place to live, but it is definitely not a utopia for women who want to pursue a career and have children. In many ways, it's socially harder here than it is in the US.
I'll stop here. My sense is that these are all issues that arise when someone sees the culture from the outside-in and doesn't get deep enough below the surface. To be sure, the independence Germans foster in their children, the lack of fear and crazy helicopter parenting, the value placed on spending time outdoors, the kita system -- these are all wonderful elements of German society and it would be great if the US moved toward this model. But a book that purports to be an authority on parenting in Germany needs to get basic factual things right and also present a clear picture of the pros and cons of the system.